Michigan Department of Health and Human Services

04/04/2024 | Press release | Distributed by Public on 04/04/2024 10:33

MDHHS expands Early Childhood Courts Program to two new counties to help keep young children with their families

LANSING, Mich. - To help ensure young children in the child welfare system grow up in permanent, nurturing homes that support their development, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is expanding the Early Childhood Courts program to St. Clair and Saginaw counties. Often referred to as Baby Court, Michigan's Early Childhood Courts provide services to biological parents so that, whenever possible, they can be the permanent caregivers for their children who have been in foster care.

"MDHHS is committed to keeping kids safe while expanding access to behavioral health supports," said MDHHS Director Elizabeth Hertel. "Early Childhood Court Programs help us address the needs of parents and their young children, so they can build strong families and stay together."

MDHHS received a grant from the federal Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to provide funding for three counties to support the implementation of Early Childhood Court Programs. In addition to St. Clair and Saginaw counties, Wayne County, which has had a Baby Court since 2008, became a part of the program in January 2023. Partners include MDHHS' Children's Services Agency and Bureau of Children's Coordinated Health Policy, the State Court Administrative Office, local courts, Community Mental Health Services Programs and Wayne State University.

Community and health disparities can be a contributing factor to families living in crisis and unstable environments. Michigan's Early Childhood Courts seek to understand the disparities and needs of families living in poverty and the connection to child welfare removals. Maltreated children are at particular risk for poor outcomes and need coordinated services across systems to support their physical and emotional well-being. Children age 3 and under are over-represented in Michigan's child welfare system, with 27% as victims of child abuse or neglect when only 14% of Michigan's population is made up of children in that age group.

"Saginaw County Community Mental Health Authority, together with our local partners, is excited to be chosen as one of the expansion sites for the development of an Early Childhood Court at our Family Division of the 10th Circuit Court," said Sandra Lindsey, Saginaw Community Mental Health Authority CEO. "Ultimately our goal is to reunite families and to support them by ensuring the safety and developmental needs of their young children as the focus of our collective interventions."

The Early Childhood Courts program is for young children, birth to age 3, and their families if the children are at risk of entering foster care due to abuse or neglect or are already in foster care and could be reunified safely if the family receives services. With individualized services and community resources to meet families' unique needs, many children are safely reunified with their biological parents or caregivers.

The HRSA grant funds the hiring of a statewide coordinator, community coordinators in each county, and establishes working groups at both state and local levels to strengthen partnerships supporting the well-being of parents and infants and toddlers. The community coordinator works collaboratively with courts, providers of foster care, Infant Mental Health Home Visiting Services, early childhood services, and parents and caregivers. Parents and caregivers with lived experiences are a crucial part of the working groups to provide insight on the child welfare system. Additionally, Wayne State University is conducting an evaluation to inform quality improvement and assess the impact of the program.

Baby Court proceedings are designed to be non-adversarial with all members taking a strengths-based approach and recognizing the family's progress. The community coordinator, parents, jurists, attorneys and providers meet monthly. All families involved with Baby Court receive services that are designed to support the parent-young child attachment as well as the parent's and young child's mental health. Research shows that Early Childhood Courts help states meet standards set by the federal government for safety, permanency and well-being, and eliminate racial disparities with timely receipt of services or rates of reunification.

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